Martin Scorsese on His Early Career, Growing Up in New York, and Not Going to the Movies

Martin Scorsese at Lincoln Center
Martin Scorsese gestures expressively during a Q&A at Lincoln Center in New York | Melanie Votaw Photo

On December 20, 2011, film director Martin Scorsese appeared at Lincoln Center before and after a screening of Mean Streets, the earliest film that earned him real attention in the industry. I had only seen the film on television, so it was great to watch a very young Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel on a large screen.

Scorsese, who will turn 70 later this year, remains exuberant about filmmaking, even as he admits he rarely watches new movies. I could have listened to him talk for hours about film in general or about growing up in Manhattan. The Q&A session was part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 50th year celebration of the New York Film Festival. Many directors will discuss their early films at Lincoln Center in 2012, bringing exciting opportunities to New York City cinephiles. When Mean Streets was accepted for the festival in 1973, Scorsese says it was “one of the most extraordinary moments” of his life.

“The New York Film Festival was the top of the line,” he told the audience. “That was the place to see everything. We couldn’t afford to get in for the first year, but the second year, I was able to see some of the films and the press screenings. It was our dream to be at the festival…. So, to be here 38 years later from 1973 is unthinkable.”

Martin Scorsese at Lincoln Center
Martin Scorsese at Lincoln Center | Melanie Votaw Photo

[amazon_link id=”B000286RR0″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Mean Streets[/amazon_link] was shot “in the language of the Vulgate,” as he put it, and received mixed reviews from both audiences and critics. “I think this is the first film with this amount of language that was so bad in it as a commercial film,” Scorsese said. “It didn’t really hit me until we sat in the audience, and my mother and father were sitting there, and the curtain went up. And, oh my God! Devastating! Some people were really annoyed; some were laughing…. A lot of people were applauding, and other people were booing and hissing.” When his mother was asked what she thought of her son’s film, she said, “I just want you to know one thing – we never used that word in the house!”

Getting Mean Streets made proved to be… well, no mean feat. Someone offered him $150,000 to make it a blaxpoitation film, and he actually considered it. (Can you imagine the outcome? Someone should make a spoof.) But he was determined with a “mad, passionate compulsion to make this first feature.”

When asked what a remake of Mean Streets would be like today, he was adamant: “There’s no way I could make it updated today. I don’t understand today…. Once you put the drugs in, you’re in a whole new world – a lot of money, a lot of destroyed lives, and a different way of thinking…. It’s a whole other kind of thinking that we were never a part of. So, whether it’s The Sopranos – I just didn’t get it. Beautifully acted and very, very interesting stuff, but I’d feel more at home with Boardwalk Empire from the 20s. So, I don’t know what the same group of people would be. They don’t live there anymore. That’s a different neighborhood now.”

Harvey Keitel Robert DeNiro
Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets | Warner Bros., 1973

Scorsese talked about those New York neighborhoods of his youth and the huge differences between his ‘hood on Elizabeth Street in lower Manhattan and the cultural revolution that was happening just west of there in Greenwich Village. “When I went to Washington Square College, it really was the first time I was part of the outside world. Prior to that, it was all Italian American or Irish Catholic,” he said. “When I went six blocks to the west side in 1960, that changed everything in terms of my outlook.”

Mean Streets was one of the first films to use popular music as part of its soundtrack. It includes a combination of rock, doo wop, and Italian folk songs. “The Neapolitan songs became the scoring of your life in a way,” Scorsese said. “Of course, there was some classical that we heard coming in through the airwaves. There was country western, popular music, and rock ‘n roll. So, all of this stuff would sort of weave in and out of the windows, especially in the summer because the windows were open, the doors were open. There was no air conditioning, no fans. So, everybody was living in an interesting kind of dorm in a way. People sleeping on fire escapes.”

Martin Scorsese at Lincoln Center
Martin Scorsese Talks Mean Streets at Lincoln Center | Melanie Votaw Photo

“It all sounds very romantic,” he continued, “but actually, it was pretty miserable. The men would be dressed with t-shirts and big boxer shorts, but that was okay because everybody understood that it was hot…. The doors were open, the windows were open, so whatever went on in the apartment, everybody heard it. If there was a party or some sort of celebration, everybody came in. If there was a fight, very often, your friend next door would come in and try to separate them…. The music was coming in from everywhere…. So, you go with the music, and I would definitely see life that way because the score was very anachronistic at times. You’re seeing something really awful, and it’s Fats Domino singing, ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home.’”

In the early 70s, though, it didn’t cost much to buy rights for song use.  Even “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Tell Me” by the Rolling Stones, which are part of the Mean Streets soundtrack, were affordable. “Phil Spector is still mad at me because he claims I didn’t pay him,” Scorsese said. Since it was a Warner Brothers film, the studio had to have paid for the songs. “Maybe he meant that I should’ve asked him,” Scorsese chuckled,  “but who was I at the time? Who’s this kid calling up asking you?”

He has certainly come a long way from those days. So, why would a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese not watch many movies? It’s difficult for him to see a film without predicting exactly where it’s going. “I know what’s going to happen,” he confessed.

Nevertheless, Scorsese continues to reinvent himself in the industry, making rock documentaries and a children’s film, Hugo [read Jane’s review here], inspired by the desire to make a movie his 12-year-old daughter could see. For that effort, he just won a Golden Globe Award for Best Director. He shows no signs of letting up, and his enthusiasm is infectious. We can only hope he continues to make movies into his 90s.


Sites to Check Out:

Martin Scorsese Films

Fast Company: How to Lead a Creative Life

Film Society of Lincoln Center

New York Film Festival


14 responses to “Martin Scorsese on His Early Career, Growing Up in New York, and Not Going to the Movies”

  1. Sheryl Avatar

    Very interesting to learn of Scorsese’s early days. I’ve seen many of his movies, but never his first.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I’ve actually only seen clips of Mean Streets, so will have to launch this to the top of my must-watch list. So many movies, so little time…

      I will say, though, that Goodfellas and The Departed are two of my all-time favorite movies. The opening scene in The Departed and the scene in Goodfellas where Henry and his girl are going into the club and the guy is carrying the table in — all shot in one take – amazing.

  2. Donna Hull Avatar

    Scorsese’s stories of growing up in NYC are fascinating. Interesting to read his opinion of today’s movies.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      And the fact that much of his movie career was born out of his early life in New York City is amazing. Take what you know. Build on it. Grow from it.

  3. Alexandra Avatar

    I can see how he wouldn’t go see many movies. I’m looking forward to Hugo. A friend from Paris loved it.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Hugo is one of my favorite movies of 2011. Definitely worth seeing.

  4. Alisa Bowman Avatar

    Such awesome insider information!

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar

      Thanks, Alisa. He was so interesting.

  5. NoPotCooking Avatar

    I didn’t know much about him – so fascinating.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      I’m still trying to wrap my head around Melanie being in the same room as Scorsese.

      1. Melanie Votaw Avatar

        It was indeed … pretty cool. 🙂

  6. Virag - Escapist Mom Avatar

    It is amazing how he sees today’s movies! “It’s difficult for him to see a film without predicting exactly where it’s going.” – Well, I think, in this case, he should watch more French movies. You never know what’s going to happen. I just love French movies because of this.

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar

      Well, he did talk about foreign films, and he’s very well-versed on them – even films from Romania.

  7. […] took home five awards, tying with The Artist for most awards of the night. (See my report of a Q&A with Scorsese in New York.) The Artist, incidentally, won three of the biggies: Best Picture, Best Director, […]

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